Statue of Jefferson Davis Moved from the University of Texas at Austin!

Jefferson Davis

Dear Commons Community,

A statue of Jefferson Davis was removed from its pedestal yesterday on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, days after a court rejected an appeal from a Confederate heritage group.  As reported by the Associated Press:

“Crews were seen removing the statue of the Confederate president from its place near the university’s iconic clock tower.

Davis’ statue will eventually be displayed in the Briscoe Center history museum on campus, which university officials said is a more appropriate place for it. The Briscoe Center has one of the nation’s largest archives on slavery.

The statue has been a target of vandalism as well as criticism that it is a symbol of racism and discrimination. Confederate symbols nationwide are being re-considered following the recent mass shooting of members of a black church in Charleston, South Carolina.”

Good move!


President Obama to Officially Change the Name of Mt. McKinley to Denali!


Dear Commons Community,

The Obama administration will change the name of North America’s tallest mountain peak from Mount McKinley to Denali, the White House said yesterday, a major symbolic gesture to Alaska Natives on the eve of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Alaska.

By renaming the peak Denali, an Athabascan word meaning “the high one,” Obama waded into a sensitive and decades-old conflict between residents of Alaska and Ohio. Alaskans have informally called the mountain Denali for years, but the federal government recognizes its name invoking the 25th president, William McKinley, who was born in Ohio and assassinated early in his second term. 

“With our own sense of reverence for this place, we are officially renaming the mountain Denali in recognition of the traditions of Alaska Natives and the strong support of the people of Alaska,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.  As reported in the New York Times:

“President Obama announced on Sunday that Mount McKinley was being renamed Denali, using his executive power to restore an Alaska Native name with deep cultural significance to the tallest mountain in North America.

The move came on the eve of Mr. Obama’s trip to Alaska, where he will spend three days promoting aggressive action to combat climate change, and is part of a series of steps he will make there meant to address the concerns of Alaska Native tribes.

It is the latest bid by the president to fulfill his 2008 campaign promise to improve relations between the federal government and the nation’s Native American tribes, an important political constituency that has a long history of grievances against the government.

Denali’s name has long been seen as one such slight, regarded as an example of cultural imperialism in which a Native American name with historical roots was replaced by an American one having little to do with the place.

The central Alaska mountain has officially been called Mount McKinley for almost a century. In announcing that Sally Jewell, the secretary of the interior, had used her power to rename it, Mr. Obama was paying tribute to the state’s Native population, which has referred to the site for generations as Denali, meaning “the high one” or “the great one.”

The peak, at more than 20,000 feet, plays a central role in the creation story of the Koyukon Athabascans, a group that has lived in Alaska for thousands of years.

Mr. Obama, freed from the political constraints of an impending election in the latter half of his second term, was also moving to put to rest a years long fight over the name of the mountain that has pit Alaska against electorally powerful Ohio, the birthplace of President William McKinley, for whom it was christened in 1896.

The government formally recognized the name in 1917, and efforts to reverse the move began in Alaska in 1975. In an awkward compromise struck in 1980, the national park surrounding it was named Denali National Park and Preserve, but the mountain continued to be called Mount McKinley.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, introduced legislation in January to rename the peak, but Ohio lawmakers sought to block the move. In June, an Interior Department official said in testimony before Congress that the administration had “no objection” to Ms. Murkowski’s proposed change.”

Denali it is!



National Labor Relations Board Browning-Ferris Ruling: A Game Changer and Big Plus for Unions!

Dear Commons Community,

On Thursday the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that the owner of a California recycling plant was a “joint employer” with the contractor that hired workers at the plant, essentially forcing both to bargain with the union together or risk violating U.S. labor law.  U.S. union leaders said that this landmark U.S. labor board ruling on companies’ obligations toward contract and franchise workers would help them organize manufacturers and e-commerce companies as well as fast food chains.  Business groups, arguing that the ruling could lead to higher costs and hurt the economy, are pushing the Republican-led Congress to overturn it, in part it because the company named in the decision – Browning-Ferris – cannot challenge it in a federal court without overcoming a number of procedural hurdles.  As reported in Reuters:

“Unions see the decision as a breakthrough not just in efforts to help employees organizes at franchisees of McDonald’s Corp and other chains but also as a tool to counter the proliferation of subcontracting in other industries in which workers are one or two steps removed from the companies indirectly controlling them.

Manufacturers including auto workers, food processors, steelmakers and aerospace companies are potential targets for union campaigns, said Elizabeth Bunn, director of the AFL-CIO’s organizing department, noting that plant workers are often not directly employed by the parent firm.

“You literally can walk into almost any non-union manufacturing plant in the United States and you’ll see workers working on a line and not be able to distinguish who is temp from an agency and who is a direct employee of the company,” she said.

Big labor has focused much of its resources over the past few years on pushing for higher wages in the fast-food industry, and the Browning-Ferris ruling could have implications for an ongoing NLRB case seeking to hold McDonald accountable as a “joint employer” for alleged violations at franchisees.

But union organizers see Thursday’s ruling as paving the way for gains across a range of industries given the widespread use of subcontracting by the manufacturing and service sectors to lower costs.

“It’s certainly a game changer,” said Teague Paterson, a partner at Beeson Tayer & Bodine, a law firm representing the union in the NLRB case. “Unions and workers have been frustrated by these triangulated relations that the board condoned in the past. It certainly opens the door to more organizing.”

This ruling was a surprise and gives a boost to the labor movement at a time when it really could use it.



Interview with Jon Erickson – Retiring President of ACT!

Dear Commons Community,

Jon Erickson, long-time president of ACT who is retiring, gave an interview which was published in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday.  He offers a number of insights from someone who has been involved with standardized testing for several decades. Here is a sample:

Ques: ACT or SAT scores can put some students on colleges’ radar screens. But test scores can undersell other students’ potential, especially those who come from low-income families. What kind of responsibility do organizations that create and sell standardized tests have to mitigate that problem?

Ans: I think about this question every day. There isn’t a measure that takes the socioeconomic factor out of the equation, there’s no magic pill that’s going to put everyone on even ground. The biggest problem is that our country is unequal, and in some places there’s less commitment to education, less time devoted to supporting students, less money to buy resources, less family time doing educational things outside of school. All of those things are really huge to me. We’re trying really hard to be one more voice talking about those gaps and why they need to be closed. We’ve created a unit focusing on underserved students, we’re giving away names for free for recruitment purposes.

Something I hope holds promise is a more-holistic view of students, so that we’re looking at them not just through the achievement lens of reading, science, and math, but also at their academic behaviors, interests, and goals. I believe that holds some promise not just for counseling but also for admissions.

Ques: In other words, you see potential in so-called noncognitive assessments? Is there a specific quality, like leadership, that you think tests could reliably measure?

Ans: One piece that’s still a challenge is that grit skills, if you will, are easy to fake or game. So I’m not ready to say we can use measures of grit in high-stakes admissions decisions, but they can at least inform advising and counseling.

Ques: What are the most meaningful testing innovations that you see coming? How might the experience of taking the ACT change for students?

Ans:  One will be results turned around almost immediately, with better personalization and diagnostics telling students the skills they need to work on. There may be a time not too far away when admissions testing blends into formative testing in K-12, where it’s more of an educational activity rather than a number sent to a student: Here are your strengths, here’s what you need to work on, here’s how you can work on them, and maybe even a list of colleges that might seem like a good fit to explore. That’s a big frontier.”

The entire interview is interesting reading.  Mr. Erickson knows his subject well. 



Planned Parenthood Report Says Fetal Tissue Videos Were Distorted!

Dear Commons Community,

Planned Parenthood told U.S. congressional leaders on Thursday that manipulations and deletions used in the editing process of secretly recorded videos slamming the organization rendered the tapes unreliable for government inquiries.

In an 11-page letter to Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, the reproductive healthcare group’s president, Cecile Richards, detailed the findings of an analysis conducted by research firm Fusion GPS and commissioned by Planned Parenthood.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The undercover Planned Parenthood videos that spurred a congressional investigation were so severely manipulated that they wouldn’t hold up in court, according to an analysis by three teams of forensic experts. 

Planned Parenthood hired independent research firm Fusion GPS to investigate the validity of the first five “sting” videos released by the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group.

Glenn Simpson, a partner at the firm and a former Wall Street Journal reporter, assembled three teams of neutral experts to comb through the tapes using special video software. He said the teams found that all of the videos analyzed — even the supposedly “full,” unedited footage the CMP released — were missing large sections of time and misleadingly altered so that separate conversations appeared to take place in an uninterrupted take. Moreover, the forensic team found that the transcripts CMS released with the videos were frequently erroneous.

“It appears they commit what I would call ‘wishful thinking’ about what was said,” Simpson told reporters Thursday.

The videos show Planned Parenthood doctors discussing the donation of fetal tissue after abortions — a legal practice. But the CMP edited the videos into episodes that make it look as though Planned Parenthood is selling fetal parts for profit and changing abortion methods to deliver intact specimens. The family planning provider strongly denies both charges, and five separate state investigations into Planned Parenthood have cleared the organization of any wrongdoing.

Simpson said his team of experts found that the subtitles in the videos do not correspond to the actual dialogue, and that the CMP may have simply invented parts of the conversation when the recordings were too low-quality to determine what was really being said. In one case, the video indicates that a technician said, “It’s a baby.” But those words cannot actually be heard in the video — the segment consists of incomprehensible background chatter.”

It looks like the CMP has some explaining to do.


Chicago Parents Go on Hunger Strike to Save a School!

Chicago Hunger Strike

Dear Commons Community,

A group of Chicago parents and supproters finished the 11th day of a hunger strike Thursday in an attempt to move the Chicago School Board to make a decision over the fate of a local school, Dyett High School.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The group of 12 has been going without solid food since Aug. 17, even after medical professionals expressed concern for their health.

While Dyett was once slated to close, the Chicago School Board is now set to weigh plans to reconstitute the school, although this process has been rife with delays. The protestors — part of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School — want the board not only to take immediate action, but also to accept their proposal to reopen the school as a district-run one that focuses on science.

The hunger strike has so far caused two protestors, Jeanette Taylor-Ramann and Irene Robinson, to spend time in the hospital. Both protestors still intend to forgo food for the indefinite future, fellow protestor Jitu Brown told The Huffington Post…

In 2013, Emanuel closed 49 Chicago schools that were underutilized and academically low-performing — a move that angered many local residents and advocates for neighborhood schools. In 2012, plans to close Dyett were announced for similar reasons. Protestors have worked for years to keep Dyett alive, but say the district’s reluctance to make a decision on this issue is unacceptable.

At a press conference Thursday, Emanuel said there are a lot of schools in the Dyett area, so it might not make sense to “talk about another one when even some of the high schools within the three-mile radius are not at capacity yet,” according to DNAinfo.

A statement from CPS CEO Janice Jackson says the district is “is continuing to work through our process, but we are mindful of the declining population in the area, which is losing students and already has 12 high schools within a 3-mile radius. We respect the community’s passion for Chicago’s children, and we will make the best possible decision to give all the children of the city a good education.”

Protester Jitu Brown says the district “refuses to work with the community.”

“What school district in their right mind would demonize and run away from parents that are activated to improve their schools?” said Brown.

He continued, “They just ignore us because they were hell-bent on closing this school and several other schools in this neighborhood, as if there’s no hope for black kids in neighborhood schools, and that’s just not true.”

Rev. Robert Jones, a community pastor, does not have a child in the district, but is fasting with protestors because “the moral of it is right.”

“I pastor people in this community and interact with people in the community and what’s happening to them is wrong,” he said.

The protestors have gained the support of those in the community. On Thursday, Brown estimated that 40 locals visited them, bringing water and juice. On Wednesday, the president of the nation’s second-largest teachers union, Randi Weingarten, joined the protestors.

These hunger strikers are pursuing justice — not for themselves, but for our children,” Weingarten said. “And they’re not simply saying to the mayor or the school board ‘Do something.’ They have a plan that they have worked on. It is a fantastic plan. . . . This is a community that’s saying ‘We want to take responsibility,’” said Weingarten, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.”

This is a noble cause.  We wish these parents well.


NY Times Editorial:  Time to Fix the Fafsa!

Dear Commons Community,

The lead New York Times editorial (entire text appears below) today is a plea for the U.S. Congress to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as Fafsa.  This is long overdue and the fact that it is the subject of a Times editorial is indicative of the need to unburden students and their parents from this horror of an  application form.  Fafsa has 105 questions and 88 pages of instructions making it “as torturous and perplexing as a federal income tax form”.  The editorial refers to Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, who comments that the information needed to calculate eligibility for aid is already collected by the Internal Revenue Service. In a simplified system, she says, tax filers could just check a box on their 1040 and immediately learn of their eligibility for federal grants and loans.”

What a relief it would be for students and parents to be able to bypass the Fafsa.  Please, do something Congress!



New York Times

Time to Fix the Fafsa


Is Congress finally ready to pass legislation that would make it easier for harried parents and students to apply for federal financial aid?

Legislators and the Department of Education have been trying for years to radically simplify the standard form, known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa. But every time they cut a few questions, they add a few more. Today the Fafsa has 105 questions and 88 pages of instructions, making it as torturous and perplexing as a federal income tax form. Research suggests that the sheer length of the form and the confusing instructions are a huge deterrent to families that need financial aid, especially low-income families sending a child to college for the first time.

President Obama has taken steps to simplify the form. But there is a limit on what he and the department can do without new legislation from Congress. Hence the interest generated by a bill introduced in January by Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and co-sponsored by Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat of Colorado, and seven other senators, mostly Republicans, that would reduce the form to a single postcard containing two questions: What is your family size? What was your household income two years ago?

Optimists believe the bill could be voted on and approved either this year or early next. A bill introduced in the House would also simplify the application process, albeit not quite as drastically.

Susan Dynarski, a professor at the University of Michigan, says that the information needed to calculate eligibility for aid is already collected by the Internal Revenue Service. In a simplified system, she says, tax filers could just check a box on their 1040 and immediately learn of their eligibility for federal grants and loans.

As a candidate, Mr. Obama had said he would allow families to apply “simply by checking a box on their tax form” authorizing the use of their tax information. His administration continues to espouse that as a goal. But for now, even without new legislation, his administration has reduced the number of questions on the form. It has introduced technology that allows students and parents to skip some questions, based on their answers to previous questions. And it has introduced a tool that allowed more than 10 million online applicants to automatically transfer their I.R.S data into the application form for the 2014-15 school year.

Of the more than one million high school seniors who do not fill out Fafsa each year, most would be eligible for Pell grant scholarships for low-income students. The administration says that its improvements have increased the number of students filling out Fafsa by about 30 percent, from 16.4 million in 2008-09 to 21.2 million in 2013-14, and that the time required to fill out the form has been sharply cut. The administration is planning to announce further simplification steps shortly.

A report issued last month by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation suggested several simplification measures with an ultimate goal of eliminating Fafsa entirely and basing eligibility for federal aid on income information provided to the I.R.S.

Research by Professor Dynarski and her colleagues showed that eliminating most of the questions would have very little impact on the final aid decision, but would greatly increase the number of students applying. Counseling is a crucial part of the process. A field study by H&R Block showed that low-income people who received immediate assistance from their tax preparers, and a simplified process for completing the form, applied for aid in greater numbers and were more likely to complete two years of college than those who got no assistance.

There is a potential downside to reducing the application to two questions or no questions at all. Some institutions and some states want information that would not be provided by the two questions, like whether a family has substantial assets that could be sold to finance higher education, or how long an applicant has lived in a state. All parties — federal, state and institutional — will need to think hard about what information they really need and how best to keep the number of questions to a minimum.

U of Penn Study:  Disproportionate Impact of K-12 School Suspension and Expulsion on Black Students!

Dear Commons Community,

The Center for Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania released a study yesterday describing the disproportion in the number of black students suspended or expelled in thirteen Southern states.  As reported by the Center:

“Nationally, 1.2 million Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in a single academic year – 55% of those suspensions occurred in 13 Southern states. Districts in the South also were responsible for 50% of Black student expulsions from public schools in the United States.

This report aims to make transparent the rates at which school discipline practices and policies impact Black students in every K-12 public school district in 13 Southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia. Despite comprising only 20.9% of students in the 3,022 districts analyzed, Blacks were suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates.

The authors use data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to present school discipline trends related to Black students district-by-district within each state. Districts in which school discipline policies and practices most disproportionately impact Black students are also highlighted. The report concludes with resources and recommendations for parents and families, educators and school leaders, policymakers, journalists, community stakeholders (NAACP chapters, religious congregations, activists, etc.), and others concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline and the educational mistreatment of Black youth in K-12 schools. The authors also offer implications for faculty in schools of education, as well as other sites in which teachers are prepared (e.g., Teach for America) and administrators are certified.”

This study documents an important issue that erodes the education of many black children in this country.  While the study’s analysis focused on the South, the problem is widespread throughout many parts of the country.




As 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina Approaches:  Racial Divide Exists in New Orleans over the Recovery!

Dear Commons Community,

It has been almost ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on August 29, 2005.  A new survey by Louisiana State University indicates that the recovery has been perceived more favorably by white residents than black residents.  As reported in the New York Times:

“As the 10th anniversary approaches of Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic levee breaches in New Orleans, a new survey finds a stark racial divide in how residents here view the recovery.

Nearly four out of five white residents believe the city has mostly recovered, while nearly three out of five blacks say it has not, a division sustained over a variety of issues including the local economy, the state of schools and the quality of life.

The survey, which was conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University, was released on Monday. The hurricane and the failure of the New Orleans levees on Aug. 29, 2005, caused more than 1,800 deaths across the coast and damaged or destroyed more than a million houses and businesses…

The L.S.U. survey echoes both what has been quantified elsewhere — such as a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and NPR that also found a racial gap in attitudes — and what is apparent by simply spending time in different neighborhoods around the city.

While a plurality of New Orleans residents rate the quality of life as about the same as before Katrina, the L.S.U. survey reports, more than one-third of blacks say it has gotten worse. The percentage of whites who believe their quality of life has improved, at 41 percent, is more than double the percentage of blacks who say the same thing…

The poll of 2,195 respondents, both in New Orleans and elsewhere in south Louisiana, was conducted via telephone interviews from July 7 to Aug. 10. The margin of sampling error within the city was plus or minus five percentage points.

The differing views about the state of the city may also reflect a change in the city’s makeup. Any comparison of New Orleans’s population before and after Katrina is complicated, in part because the population was not stable in 2005 but, according to some examinations, on a steady downward trajectory.

But comparisons are also made difficult because many of those here in the city now are not those who left. The L.S.U. survey found that more than a quarter of the city’s current residents had moved here since Katrina. Those who did so were wealthier and more likely to be white and college educated than those who lived here before 2005.”


Jaime Holmes: On the Need to Teach Ignorance!

Dear Commons Community,

Jamie Holmes, a fellow at New America and the author of the forthcoming book, Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, has an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times, proposing that faculty need to do a better job of teaching ignorance. He posits that too much of what faculty teach emphasizes what is known but it is the unknown which unleashes the creativity to experiment and seek answers. He provides several vignettes of faculty who have felt the need to teach ignorance in their courses. For example:

“In 2006, a Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart J. Firestein, began teaching a course on scientific ignorance after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain. (He suspected that a 1,414-page textbook may have been culpable.)

As he argued in his 2012 book “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” many scientific facts simply aren’t solid and immutable, but are instead destined to be vigorously challenged and revised by successive generations. Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves, in Dr. Firestein’s phrasing, “feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.” By inviting scientists of various specialties to teach his students about what truly excited them— not cold hard facts but intriguing ambiguities — Dr. Firestein sought to rebalance the scales.”

Holmes concludes:

“The study of ignorance — or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford — is in its infancy. This emerging field of inquiry is fragmented because of its relative novelty and cross-disciplinary nature (as illustrated by a new book, “Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies”). But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.

The time has come to “view ignorance as ‘regular’ rather than deviant,” the sociologists Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey have boldly argued. Our students will be more curious — and more intelligently so — if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.”

Is ignorance bliss?